She Blinded Me with Science! Sheer Nylon Sleepwear and the Baby Boom
By MICHELLE METENS
It wouldn’t be possible to talk about the history of sheer and slinky lingerie without talking about the science, research and development that went into creating the miracle fiber that most certainly played a role in the massive baby boom of the 1950s – nylon!
“Good heavens Miss Sakamoto – you’re beautiful!” Wallace Carothers, DuPont scientist and inventor of the nylon polyamide fiber.
Innovation in textile development was bustling during the first half of the 20th century. Most people don’t think very much about the chain reaction of political relationships and how they effect things like fashion, but politics is at the heart of all trade agreements, and trade is at the heart of the manufacturing supply chain. In the 1800s, rayon was developed as a response to the silk shortages during the Opium Wars, and when relations with the Japanese started to sour in 1940, Vanity Fair, one of the giants of American lingerie, had the forethought to begin working with DuPont, intent on creating a gossamer yarn to replace imported Japanese silk.
A DuPont factory worker inspects and packages spools of nylon yarn, sending them on their way to become stockings, slips and enticingly sheer sleepwear.
Nylon had just made its debut at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1939 and VF took note of this incredible new fiber. VF and DuPont worked exclusively through the 1940s to develop the silky softness, feather weight, and incredible tensile strength of the nylon fiber. It took almost a decade to perfect the yarn, but by the time they finished the results were spectacular! In 1948 Vanity Fair announced via a full page ad in the NY Times that it was converting its entire production to the new wonder fabric.
You can still see the influences of 40’s fashions in the silhouette of this early 1949 nylon slip.
With the elimination of rationing restrictions, Dior’s New Look collection, and post war economic prosperity, a wave of femininity hit the US. Women were starved for it after the long and austere decades of the Great Depression and WWII. VF designer Nancy Melcher was a seasoned pro and had been working at Vanity Fair since 1937, she was the only lingerie designer to ever win the prestigious Coty award for her work at VF, specifically for her use of crystal pleating in the newly available nylon tricot fabric. The designs she created were exactly what the modern woman wanted. Something to let her feel sexy again, and Melcher provided the means to sex appeal in spades.
This design from Nancy Melcher for Vanity Fair is surely one of the most feminine and sensually appealing fashion concepts to come along in decades. Photo by Mark Shaw, 1953.
VF’s themed advertising approach focusing on the garment instead of the model’s face was one of its longest running campaigns, continuing from the late 40s all the way through the late 70s, and featured legendary supermodel Carmen Dell’Orefice during the height of the golden years of Vanity Fair. These stunning images show every aspect of what women loved about the beauty of this type of gown and peignoir – the lightness, the sheer quality, the pleats, and the way the fabric felt was absolutely heavenly.
Above: Carmen Dell’Orefice as photographed by Mark Shaw for VF, 1953.
The 1950 advertisement
The actual vintage gown in rich hyacinth
1950s vintage Vanity Fair gown, photo via Dollhouse Bettie
Silhouettes changed through the decades but the fabric remained key. Nylon continued to be the top choice for designers and manufacturers of intimate apparel.
A stunning incorporation of ombre dip dye into their classic perma-pleating enhances this simple 70s Vanity Fair wrap gown.
And it wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t mention the infamous VF leopard print! Circa 1976. I think Jerry Hall wore this to Studio 54.
In 1948 when VF announced their conversion, the industry literally changed overnight, and the vast majority of brands jumped on the nylon bandwagon, notably Van Raalte, who also made a name for themselves as purveyors of exceptionally fine nylon fabrics, each of which was given a special name for their marketing campaigns. Below is one of their trade marked fabrics, “Satin Sauvette,” made up into a stunning lace appliqued slip.
Photos of vintage Van Raalte Satin Sauvette full slip via Dollhouse Bettie.
And of course it wouldn’t be fitting if we didn’t mention the glamour queens of tricot – Intime and Lucie Ann! You can find a treasure trove of photos online, I spotted these incredible gowns posted by Midnight Glamour on Pinterest.
Lucie Ann for Claire Sandra of Beverly Hills, this set boasts 39 feet of fabric at the hemline sweep!
A classic Intime set in their trademark chiffon and lace combination.
These vintage gowns are a far cry from the tank tops and boxers most women wear to bed today, but I think back to when I was a kid watching re-runs of Green Acres; Eva Gabor as Lisa Douglas reminds us to treat ourselves every once in a while to some hot pink feathers and a glass of champagne!